RWC 15: The people’s All Blacks have nothing to fear
2011 win copperfastened strong relationship between New Zealand and their team
Richie McCaw has surpassed Colin Meads as New Zealand’s most fondly thought of All Black. Photograph: Getty
There is, unlike the last World Cup, a notable lack of angst in New Zealand. The near panic felt by a nation that had started to wonder whether the All Blacks would ever win another World Cup has gone.
Winning in 2011 has seen a cork that was rammed in way too tight, just about fly out altogether and leave New Zealanders in an entirely different state of mind about the All Blacks and, more specifically, their chances at the World Cup.
There’s no doubt a thesis somewhere in all of this: in examining the relationship between the All Blacks and the people – the people and the All Blacks. The precis would be easy enough – New Zealanders have learned to love the All Blacks unconditionally.
That’s what winning in 2011 did – it truly made the All Blacks the people’s team in a way they weren’t before. That had been the marketing slant since the dawn of the professional age, but those All Blacks who felt the wrath of the nation following World Cup failure will testify that the love has been very much conditional.
Heroes before they went, they were vilified when they returned. Former scrumhalf Justin Marshall recalls collecting his luggage in Auckland after the 1999 tournament to find that the baggage handlers had scrawled ‘loser’ all over it, while a racehorse owned by coach of that failed mission, John Hart, was spat on.
A failed All Black mission never ends with shrugged shoulders and a philosophical approach. Rather, it’s a national witch hunt masquerading as a high-performance review.
It’s a hell of a business being an All Black – tougher again around World Cups when all of a sudden everyone in New Zealand is an authority on the game, plonked in front of the telly critiquing the game plan and appalled at the two unforced errors the team will make all game.
Four years ago the All Blacks found the intensity of the nation’s focus almost too much. Man-of-the-tournament Jerome Kaino left the team hotel in the week of the final to sneak home for a few hours.
There were presents and flowers spilling down his porch, everyone wishing him luck, to the point that it seemed almost more threatening than supportive.
Last time round, the fear of failure was almost crippling. The pressure to win on home soil was so intense that several All Blacks, most notably bruising lock Brad Thorn, said that they didn’t enjoy one minute of the tournament.
“A lot of us had been through 2007 so it was hard to enjoy 2011,” All Black captain Richie McCaw said recently. “I know exactly what Brad was saying because I felt a little bit like that because you were on such a mission just to do it. That was one of the reasons we managed to get there. We have got to try to have the same sort of desire and attitude.”
The funny thing is the All Blacks say they are not particularly aware of external expectation. That’s hard to believe.
In fact, they do feel the pressure. They know the responsibility they carry – they understand they are the country’s greatest export. They get that they are the unifying force of New Zealand – that Kiwis all over the world have a vehicle to which they can hitch their colours.
How could the All Blacks be oblivious to any of this? Wherever they go – Tokyo, Chicago, London, Dublin or Sydney – they are followed by black-clad acolytes. They tend to have their hoodies on and keep their heads down. That way they can avoid being accosted by the legions of autograph hunters and well-wishers.
In the unlikely event the All Blacks didn’t know what they mean to the nation, in 2011 the National Party set the general election for early November – gambling they would be able to cash in on a successful World Cup.
Appease the masses
What’s intriguing on the eve of the 2015 tournament is how this changed relationship between fans and team may affect the desire and motivation of the players.
Since the All Blacks’ World Cup victory in 2011, they have only lost three Tests. They have been phenomenally good and head coach Steve Hansen has hardly put a foot wrong.
The aura of captain McCaw has grown to the point where he has surpassed Colin Meads as the country’s most recognisable and fondly thought of All Black.
The other veterans of the team – Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Tony Woodcock and Keven Mealamu – have also cemented their positions as all-time greats and with the arrival of new stars such as Aaron Smith, Julian Savea, Malakai Fekitoa, Brodie Retallick and Ben Smith since the last tournament, the All Blacks have reinvented themselves without losing sight of who they are.
This is a team almost without fault: they have strong relationships with their sponsors [a previous failing of old regimes], they are personable, marketable, amiable and bloody good.
It has been noticeable as the World Cup has crept closer that more of New Zealand’s A-list celebs are popping up as unashamed fans – putting it out there that they are behind the team and will still be behind the team even if it all goes wrong in England.
If the vibe is right and everyone can be believed, then there is no stick for the All Blacks to fear at this World Cup. They won’t have to face an angry and disillusioned public if they come home empty-handed. Which goes against the normal order of things.
Legacy Seasoned campaigners talk about the importance of public expectation in making the All Blacks what they are. The All Blacks go into each and every game with a mentality that losing is not an option:
the legacy demands they never accept defeat. That’s been a huge factor behind their century of success.
Pressure is the norm. They live in this constant world of knowing they have a reputation not so much to protect, but to enhance.
When they were staring at defeat in Dublin two years ago – 22-17 behind with time all but up – it was their collective refusal to be the first All Black team to lose to Ireland that enabled them to keep the ball alive for more than two minutes and score in the corner.
That fear of failure is embedded deep in the subconscious of every All Black and it tends to manifest itself when the game is in the balance; when lungs are heaving and legs are quivering with fatigue. Ireland 2013 wasn’t the only game in the last few years that the All Blacks have won late in the piece.
They have made a habit out of it and Australia, England and South Africa have all learned the hard way that the All Blacks go for 83 minutes.
Whenever they claw out a dramatic late win, it’s their superior fitness that is praised.
The All Blacks do spend hours on their conditioning and believe they train harder and smarter than everyone else, but could it be that it is something intangible that separates them from the chasing pack; that what allows them to still be playing at their peak when their opponents are dying on their feet, is the desire to give the people what they expect?
If the public edge has softened in the wake of 2011 and the external pressure on the All Blacks is less for this tournament, it begs the question whether they will be motivated in the same way.
It’s a question the senior leaders within the All Blacks have posed to themselves. The quarter-final exit in 2007 and the subsequent humiliation everyone felt at being part of the worst All Black campaign in history provided strong motivation in 2011.
“In terms of us as a team and the challenge [of the World Cup], that is something we have talked about,” says veteran centre Conrad Smith. “We have got to be as desperate to win as we were back then .
Desperation “But no one has won it back-to-back . . . hopefully we can get to that level of desperation, that level of want, so we can get another result.”
And there’s the rub – it won’t matter a jot to the All Blacks that the New Zealand public have become more realistic and forgiving about World Cups.
While the All Blacks do feel pressure being exerted from outside their bubble, it’s not as intense as the pressure they put themselves under.
Inside the camp, the intensity of expectation is phenomenal. It crushes plenty of good men.
Hansen, having been around Test football since 2001 and the All Blacks since 2004, has learned not to underestimate the stress and anxiety new players can feel when they first come into the camp.
There is pressure on so many levels. There is the jump in training loads. There is the volume of intricate technical and tactical detail that has to be absorbed. And hardest of all is the stress that comes with being a role model whose every move is watched, analysed and judged.
Ultimately, though, what being an All Black is truly about, is getting up each day and striving to be better. That bit is relentless: the culture is obsessive in that regard.
Win or lose, it doesn’t matter, the process is the same: the performance will be reviewed, micro-analysed to find the faults and the next week spent eradicating them and working harder to be better.
It can be stifling and crippling and European club rugby is full of good players who found that once they made it to the peak, they just couldn’t handle it.
Apprenticeship The culture has evolved under Hansen and the old school All Black way of new boys serving their apprenticeship and having to survive tough love, is long gone.
Under Hansen, the senior All Blacks embrace the new men, mentor them, guide them and encourage them to be themselves. “You don’t want them to be so uncomfortable that they can’t perform,” he says.
“You know what the culture is but you don’t really understand what it is until you get into the system,” is the view of long-serving All Black flanker Liam Messam. “Once you are in there, the management and leaders do a really good job in making sure you lift those values every day.
“The leaders always say you are an All Black 24/7. There are not too many rules, I guess – it is the All Black way. The boys understand what that it is. It’s just about being a genuine human.”
The big picture in this pursuit of relentless excellence is to reach November this year with history having been made. The All Blacks want to finish this year universally recognised as the most dominant team in history.
“We know we need to have a lofty aspiration,” said Hansen. “It is to try to be the most dominant side in the history of the game. That’s not something we believe we are – it’s something we are striving for.
“What does that [being the most dominant team in history] look like? There are some obvious outcomes. No one has won more than 17 Tests in a row; no one has gone undefeated two years in a row; no one has won back-to-back World Cups. They are obvious goals.”